Running a Strategic Planning Session

Many companies embark on a strategic planning process, either formerly or informally. Often, many parties in the organization are involved in the process, and the strategic planning session is a traditional occasion which brings the managers together to discuss the issues facing the company. This article is addressed to the people in the organization who have the mandate to run and facilitate such sessions. This article will address each phase of the strategic planning session facilitation:

  • Preparing the workshop(s): getting ready
  • Running the session: the tools, the style, the rhythm and the aspects to cover
  • Follow up: making sure action gets taken and that the benefits last 

Preparing the workshop(s): getting ready

1 – Defining objectives and setting expectations

Facilitating a strategic planning process is not just designing a template and having the organization fill in the gaps. On the contrary, it means carefully coaching the management team through a thinking process. Often, the actual strategic plan is even less important than the process to get at the plan.

An observation of world-class strategic processes shows a trend to split the process into three phases:

Phases Objectives End Product
Opening the discussion This phase’s objective is to allow
managers to investigate different avenues for the strategies of their companies.
The purpose is not to drive participants to a decision, but rather to explore
avenues, and make sure they do not set limits on how creative their strategy
could be. It is crucial not to let the team try to make decisions, but
rather to encourage questions and debate.
Two or three possible strategic directions
Defining a strategic direction The objective is for the team to decide
on one course of action. In this phase only, decisions start to be made.
One strategic direction
Designing the functional plans The objective is to translate the
strategic direction into actionable functional plans: budget, Human Resources,
marketing, communications, etc…
Functional plans

2- Deciding who should participate

A few rules of thumb:

  • Small numbers: Running a session with more than six or seven participants is difficult. If run with more participants, four or five people often tend to monopolize the discussion, and the others go into listening mode.
  • Diversity: Get a cross-section of expertise; by inviting, for example, the vice-president marketing, engineering, finance and others, you make sure that everybody is in the loop right away.
  • Do not stick with hierarchy: Invite people who would add value to the discussion. It is also a good opportunity to invite the rising stars, those who would bring new ideas, “shake the box”…

3- Find the appropriate location

Here are a few of the alternatives:

  • Offsite: One of the best ways to differentiate the session from the traditional meetings. People relax, do not get the phone or e-mail, and are more attentive to the discussion. You can choose to meet at a location close to the office, or even to take the team to a local resort, making this experience an enjoyable one people will look forward to next year.
  • In-house: Make sure in this case that nobody can disturb the meeting or take away one of the participants. The advantage of in-house is that it allows you to fetch additional information or documents that might be useful in the discussion if relevant. In general, though, avoid in-house meetings.

4- Gathering the back-up material

Avoid starting the workshop with a two- or three-hour presentation about the company market, competitive position, etc… Presenting all the facts at the beginning of the session tends to be long and does not generate any interesting discussions. However, depending on the discussion, you will need some facts to confirm or infer some statements. Preparing some pages about the market and the company performance can help feed a discussion that is not getting anywhere.

We suggest you use a separate document or media to provide the facts: if you are distributing a document to the participants, add them in the appendix (this way, they will not flip through the pages while you speak), and use overheads to insert them within an existing presentation. For the IT savvy presenters, attach them via a hyperlink within your Powerpoint presentation.

You can also take some of the key pages of the previous strategic plan: instead of reinventing the process each year, start from where the company last left it, and focus on the new challenges or the changes in the industry.

5- Thinking about the setup

The setup will largely depend on the culture in your organization. Think carefully about it, as it has a huge influence on the spirit of the session and can set the tone for the entire day:

  • For up to eight participants: Prepare a large round table, and make sure to spread people across the table evenly. The president does not have to sit at the end, and all the marketing guys do not have to sit together, for example.
  • For 8-to-30 participants: Use a U-shaped table. Everybody will be able to see each other, and it is a good way to focus attention. If you are going to run workshops with these many people, plan smaller meeting rooms.
  • Mark people’s place in advance
  • Make sure you have enough markers, transparencies, flipcharts, and tape to tape the flipchart. (You can also use the excellent 3m flipchart which allows you to stick pages on the wall as you go on into the discussion).
  • Leave enough room for you to circulate.
  • If you are using a projector from your laptop, also use an overhead projector which will allow you to insert back-up material into the discussion, or to capture ideas directly on the transparency.

6- Preparing the presentation document

Remember the workshop objectives are to trigger a discussion. Your presentation document, therefore, should reflect this objective. The intent is not to give the answer, but to serve as a support for the discussions.

  • Revision of the company’s mission or vision: Do not make this part a lengthily discussion, as it could rapidly become quite theoretical.
  • Objectives of the session: What is expected at the end of the session? What could the end products look like?
  • Stretch goals for the company: Focuses organizational energy on the one breakthrough goal that will produce the greatest benefit to your organization, its customers, and stakeholders.
  • Aspects that will not be discussed at the workshop: These are typically items that are either outside the scope of the exercise (performance indicators, and salary evaluation, for example), or that you do not wish to address as they might deter from the original objective.
  • Key strategic questions to answer: A beautiful way to organize the session.
  • A section for each strategic question, backed up with facts and existing analysis.
  • Differentiation axis: Understand what will be the differentiation axis for the company. Companies can rarely differentiate around the three dimensions (for example, technology, price and service) and companies that excel usually excel because they have clearly chosen one direction.
  • Next steps, review of action items 

We also often use a flipchart to record:

  • Action to be taken
  • Analysis to be done
  • Unanswered questions
  • Questions outside of the scope of the discussion

Running the session: the tools, the style, the rhythm and the aspects to cover

Choose the appropriate style: If you are the facilitator, you cannot have an opinion. All you can do is guide your audience by asking the right questions, and pointing them to the facts. As a result, many strategic planning professionals ask outside consultants to help them run the session. It allows them to be part of the discussion and not to lose credibility.

Monitoring the time: You can also appoint a time keeper if you are afraid of not being able to check the time yourself. Set a timing for each section of the agenda and stick to it since people appreciate to finish on time. You can always agree to come back to some sections that were not finished at the end of the session if time allows, or in a separate discussion. However, if people do not agree on the objectives of the company at the beginning, take the time needed to reach an agreement and do not move to the next section, for if you do, the rest of the discussion will be useless.

Carefully planning the agenda: Do not expect to cover more than one session every 90 minutes, plan coffee breaks, and allow 1/2 hour to return phone calls and check the voice mail. Finally, never forget the golden rule: in a presentation mode, never expect to present more than one page every three minutes (20 pages per hour). This naturally does not hold true if the discussion is focussed on one page. Afternoons are difficult times, so get the more heavy discussions done in the morning and plan discussion groups for the afternoon.

Dealing with difficult questions or difficult people

  • Use the “parking lot”: On a flipchart, write down the subjects which no discussion could solve, and which might degenerate into painful discussions. Agree with the team at the beginning as a ground rule NOT to discuss these points during the day.
  • Spend time with them before the session: Walk them through the presentation document, identify the areas of disagreement.
  • Arrange sitting arrangements so that they can be “coached” during the session.

Follow up: making sure action gets taken and the benefits last

Prepare notes or minutes of the meeting: Participants will rarely read about the meeting they attended. Instead, provide a synthesized action plan highlighting responsibilities, and a summary of the discussions. If you are required to take action, provide them with the deadlines.

Arrange discussion with participants one week after the session: After appropriate time for participants to reflect on the session, you can arrange a discussion with the key participants. It will allow unsolved issues to surface, and also to get the pulse as to the efficiency of the session.

Organize a follow-up meeting: It is wise not to allow participants to leave the session thinking they’ll see a strategic plan soon, and will meet next year again. Make sure you plan follow-up meetings in smaller groups to refine the findings of the session, and double-check if the recommendations are relevant.


Leading a strategic planning session is one of the most difficult tasks of the role of the strategic planning manager: it requires the personal skills to capture the interest of the audience, the listening skills to pick up signals, the analytical skills to see the gaps and the opportunities, the synthetic mind to summarize and build consensus … However, this is where your role comes to the fullest potential: to unleash the strategic thinking of the management team, and once in a while, to force the company to step back and reflect on its strategy. Good luck !

Recommended Reading:

Strategy Process: The Concepts, Context and Cases, by Henry Mintzberg, James Brian Quinn (Contributor)

Team-Based Strategic Planning, by C. Davis Fogg

Simplified Strategic Planning: A No-Nonsense Guide for Busy People Who Want Results Fast! by Robert W. Bradford, Peter Duncan, and Brian Tarcy

Applied Strategic Planning: How to Develop a Plan That Really Works, by Leonard Goodstein

This article was originally featured at in December 2000,
and is reprinted with permission.